My Turn: New Zealand volcano eruption serves as reminder that Earth is still a dangerous planet

  • A group tours New Zealand’s Whakaari/White Island in January. Paul Doscher

For the Monitor
Published: 12/12/2019 7:00:23 AM

Here in New Hampshire my wife, Deb, and I awoke to a text message from our daughter in New Zealand: “Live: Eruption at Whakaari/White Island” and a link to a news story. Fortunately the island is a long way from where our daughter lives in Wellington, but nevertheless the story was immediately of interest, as we were on the island ourselves earlier this year.

The first thing we learned on the news feed was that about 50 people were on the island when the volcano erupted at about 2 p.m. on Dec. 9. By noon, we learned that five were confirmed dead and another eight missing, with overflights by the New Zealand navy helicopters unable to see any survivors. Thankfully, many were evacuated but of those most suffered burns and had to be hospitalized.

Even though the New Zealand geological service had raised the volcanic activity alert in recent weeks from 1 (low) to 2 (moderate), the local tour boat company and a helicopter tour company were still taking tourists to see what is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. The activity alert only rose to “4” once the eruption actually started. Apparently, while geologists now have the capacity to monitor seismic (earthquake) activity and anticipate possible earthquakes, knowing when an underground magma and steam reservoir like Whakaari (pronounced “Fak-aa-ree”) will erupt is not something that is predictable.

When Deb and I visited the island in January, the alert level was “1” and tours were headed the 50 kilometers offshore twice a day. Each boat was nearly full, with tourists from around the world and a few “Kiwis.” Arriving at the island, one can smell the sulfur that is constantly emitted from the various steam vents in the volcanic cone. It doesn’t look like a “cone” but that’s because when you land on the island you are essentially arriving 700 meters up the side of the volcano, because most of it is below sea level. Only the top 320 meters of the volcano is above the ocean surface.

The island is privately owned, and there were a few periods of time when it was commercially mined for sulfur, all of which ended either because of eruptions, or because the mineral quality of the sulfur didn’t make it worth shipping. Arriving at the island in January, we saw the rusting hulks of some of the last efforts at mining that ended in the 1930s.

If you have been to the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, you can picture something of what the view is like on Whakaari/White Island. The ground is warm, sometimes hot, devoid of vegetation and has various shades of color, depending on what minerals most recently surfaced. Steam rises from the “lake” that forms inside the cone. The trails are carefully marked and you were warned never to step off the trails, as there are places where the thin crust on the surface hides holes filled with boiling water. No one goes to White Island without a tour guide, and the guides don’t promise that there won’t be a vent or small unexpected eruption at any time. Hard hats are mandatory.

We were told during our trip that the last eruption was in January 2013, and it lasted only a few minutes and produced mostly steam.

It was a fascinating tour, although the thought that you were in a dangerous and unpredictable place never left the front of your mind.

The eruption of Dec. 9 reminded us, and should remind everyone, that, yes, the world is a dangerous place. In our technologically advanced societies, where we make many things safer with that technology (cars, tools, planes, food, etc.) we often forget that humans evolved on a planet that is in a state of constant change. Volcanoes are certainly one of the more dramatic changes. We can never make the world safe for humans from earthquakes, storms, floods, drought and other natural events that are beyond our control.

It is a tragic story that unfolded at White Island. Perhaps the tour companies that have safely operated there for decades grew complacent about the potential for disaster, although I can attest to their rigorous safety procedures during their tours.

But seeing and understanding the truly awesome forces that formed our planet and continue to mold it is a lure that is difficult to resist. While I am unlikely to return to Whakaare/White Island, I will most definitely be returning to the Yellowstone region. Yellowstone hosts more than half of all the “thermal features,” such as hot pools and geysers, in the world. It is also a rich ecosystem, preserved as our first national park, where one can see wildlife not readily observed in many other places. And, yes, as a dedicated angler I can attest that the region has some outstanding fishing.

Geologists remind me that Yellowstone is the site of one of the largest volcanic explosions ever, occurring about 640,000 years ago. It was about 1,000 times the size of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Scientists believe that another eruption could happen within my lifetime, or not.

It likely won’t happen during my fishing trip this coming April, but in the back of my mind, as I’m chasing wild rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout, there will be visions of Wharaare/White Island. They will remind me that this world is a dangerous place, no matter how much technology we humans create in our quest to be safe.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare.)

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